Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Adventure ∩ Dream Boat (part 1)

For nearly four years I followed the story of Steve Mulkerrins, a contractor and condo developer by trade who built an extraordinary sailboat in a warehouse on Chicago’s South Side. It was a Galway hooker, a traditional wooden sailboat used along the western coast of Ireland for much of the 19th and early 20th century to haul cargo and for fishing. Steve’s boat is the biggest of its kind: 47 feet long and made of oak and larch. It took him nearly four years and $500,000 of his own money to build, he says. In 2006, he and a few of his friends set a world record by sailing the boat from Chicago home to their native Ireland. I published feature stories about Steve’s undertaking in WoodenBoat magazine (July 2006) and Lake magazine (July 2007).

The following sketch comes from notes I took as I sailed with the crew during their first Great Lakes journey in 2004. We traveled from Lake Michigan across lakes Huron, St. Clair, Erie and Ontario and up the St. Lawrence Seaway to Montreal. Later posts will recount storms and idyllic days, describe the boat’s massive construction and tell you more about the men, who prove that achieving the American Dream – while maintaining ties with one’s heritage – is alive and well.

September 15. . . “You’re overdressed!” Steve says to me as he enters the terminal at Chicago Executive Airport, an airport for small aircraft northwest of Chicago. He is referring to a call I made to him a couple of days earlier. “Steve, I need your fashion advice,” I joked with the no-frills, self-described carpenter. “What type of foul weather gear should I buy for the trip?” Dressed now in a t-shirt and cargo pants (a duffle bag by my side is packed with a ski jacket and nylon pants instead of expensive sailing gear), I had arrived at the airport at 10:30 a.m., as Steve suggested, for an 11 a.m. chartered flight to Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan. The crew left the Saint Barbara there three weeks earlier during the first, brief leg of their Great Lakes journey. Steve and his friends now saunter toward me through the departure lounge, smiling and laughing. It is 11:08 a.m.

Steve* is the stoutest of the group and wears the same stained (but laundered) jeans he wore to tar the boat’s hull months ago. A native of Connemara on Ireland’s west coast, he is hard working, fast-talking and our captain. By his side is his skipper, Patrick*, from the Aran Islands. He is handsome, six-foot-plus and has a melodious way of speaking English. Yet he is so low-key that you would never guess he possesses ninety percent of this crew’s sailing experience and skills. Niall is first mate and a boyhood friend of Steve’s. He is wiry, has a weathered face and tends to call women, including me, “Baby Doll.” Aidan, the youngest crewmember, has a wife and baby at home. He also is from Ireland and works in Pat’s Chicago plumbing business. Tom, who is American-born but of Irish heritage, is a former Chicago cop and Steve’s neighbor on Chicago’s northwest side. Robert is Irish-American as well. A Vietnam vet and retired network television cameraman, he is filming the voyage for a documentary.

A twin-engine pulls up on the tarmac. We pile in, with the guys insisting that I take the front seat beside the pilot. We are in the air by 11:30. It’s a sunny, hot day, the deep blue lake below us smudged with white cresting waves. White horses, sailors call them. They are a sign of rough weather that a sailor will often note to decide if going out that day is worth whatever lies ahead.

The mood in the cabin is high. The plane’s engines roar, so I cannot hear what the guys are saying behind me, but their tone is light and joking. Whenever I turn around, I find Tom, with his large green-blue eyes, staring at me. While I knew most of the crew from gathering at the boat’s construction site and its launch, I had never met him before our boarding the plane and smile at him politely. Maybe he wanted the front seat, I think.

Our pilot, Paul, gives me a set of headphones to wear. He lives on Beaver Island and often flies people between there and the Chicago area. Between his radio communications with the airport, he tells me about flying over Lake Michigan.

“The waves are big, even from up here,” he says, eyeing the whitecaps. At this point, the water seems as abstract as the aeronautical map that lies in my lap. I trace our progress with my finger, comparing the map’s figures with various bays and islands I spot in the hazy distance. Paul tells me that in 2001 he flew back and forth over Beaver Island, helping to look for a downed plane that contained a man, his wife and their three children. Of all the searchers in the air and on the water looking for the family, he was the one to find them. They had crashed in a cedar swamp on the island. The two pilots and the family’s dog perished.

“We’re now best friends for life,” he tells me of his relationship with the husband and wife. “She calls me monthly to see how I am. She must relive that crash every day.”

Beaver Island lies nearly 300 miles northeast of Chicago and is known as America’s Emerald Isle. Mormon leader James Strang tried establishing a kingdom there in 1850 but was later assassinated. Irish fishermen and their families then settled the island. Today, the summer homes of people from Milwaukee, Chicago and other cities dot the island, whose population dips to 551 residents in winter.

An hour later, we land on Beaver Island’s grass runway and taxi to two sheds, one clad in silvered, weathered wood, the other built of logs. As soon as we step out of the plane, many of the crew light cigarettes and take quick, deep drags. The pilot gives us a ride into town. St. James is quaint, with clapboard-sided houses and inns for the tourists. The place has a getting-ready-for-winter quiet that resort towns take on once the summer residents have deserted.

By 1 p.m. we are at the harbor and the boat. I have not seen the Saint Barbara in a couple of months, and she looks good, if not a little lonely alongside the gravel quay. She is named in the Irish tradition after a saint and also for Steve’s mother, out of love and perhaps a pitch for good luck. Her black hull sits low in the water, her hatch is battened down and locked, the open cockpit already a bit sun-beaten and her single mast bare, the deep red mainsail bound to the boom, the jib and staysail stored below in the front bulkhead. Her name in white script graces the bow in English and the stern in Gaelic (Naomh Bairbre).

The guys go to work. There is no organization; there are no orders given. They load their gear on board and open up toolboxes full of clamps, pliers, brackets, hammers and screwdrivers. These are men used to working with their hands, building and fixing things. They talk to one another in bursts of Gaelic and English as they install, adjust and tinker. Pat and Steve check the bilge, which is dry, then the engine, the oil, antifreeze, battery and generator. Steve checks the ballast in the hull, the gray bricks he cast one winter from scrap lead lie there in neat rows. The diesel engine fires up and settles into idling as Tom goes through the small refrigerator in the galley, throwing out old food. Pat sets up his laptop on the chart table. He’ll use it for accessing GPS and weather reports. With a few mouse clicks he demonstrates to me how he’ll chart the course from Beaver Island to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where he and Steve plan to store the boat for the winter before attempting an Atlantic crossing next spring. It is 1,800 miles to St. John’s via water; 1,600 miles as the crow flies.

The cabin is still a mess but the men are satisfied that we are ready to sail when someone suggests we head into town for lunch. All seven of us walk down the road and find a restaurant with a big covered porch. They are just closing up for the day, but a woman lets us inside. I order a cold, plastic-wrapped sandwich from the refrigerated case. Steve and Pat appeal to the waitress, who confirms that the cook is willing to fire up the range. Most of the crew is keen to have a hot sandwich or hamburger. I learn why later.

After lunch we head to the town’s small supermarket. Breaking into two groups, each with a cart, the guys roam up and down the aisles, pulling stuff off shelves. My mind goes blank about what to buy – will we cook, what kind of supplies are on the boat, what do the guys like to eat, and when will we replenish supplies again? As an avid cook at home, I am accustomed to asking such questions of my own larder. But somehow, I don’t think I’ll get answers from these guys, so I wander the aisles with them. They are searching for summer sausage, and they find one, a foot-and-a-half long. It will turn out to be one of the most delicious things we buy, eaten in chunks on deck in the cold wind. We load the carts with deli meats, bacon, cheese, milk, jugs of water, lots of bread, rolls, mayonnaise, baby wipes, paper towels, Styrofoam cups and cartons of cigarettes. Health conscious, I grab yogurt, Grape-Nuts cereal, nectarines, apples, grapes, a cucumber and carrots.

We push the two carts of supplies back toward the boat along the asphalt road. Locals, mostly graying men with their hands in their pockets, have gathered around the boat by this time and watch us approach. There’s talk of three weeks’ worth of dock fees owed. Steve says nothing. A few minutes go by and whoever is in charge of the marina lets it go. I help unload the groceries and store them in the galley cabinets and mini-fridge.

“Ah, someone to do the cooking and cleaning!” Niall says, coming below deck. Another crew member made a similar comment earlier, looking at me, the only woman on this crew. “Careful!” I warn him sternly. He pulls back. I am not sure what to do with myself, though, as the men fall into their work. I have to make myself useful, although my “job” is to write about the journey. I eye the galley and the recently upholstered seat cushions, which are already stained. A jumble of things fills built-in shelves. Washers and screws lie scattered on the galley table. A life-size blow-up doll – Jenny, one of the guys tells me – lies deflated behind one bench. Her mouth gapes, her blonde wig is a mess, a baggy t-shirt covers her torso. A dog leash is around her neck. The guys laugh as I eye her.

“That’s Niall’s girlfriend,” someone says. Niall grumbles and denies it. He heads for the boat’s front-most bulkhead to stash diving gear that the crew may need during the journey if they have to inspect the hull beneath the water line. The boat is an unknown quantity during this journey. While the crew has sailed her during daytrips on Lake Michigan, no one knows how she will perform during prolonged rough seas, or in salt water.

I laugh over the inflatable doll but wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. My guard is up, feminist defenses deployed, yet I’ve spent enough time with most of these guys to know there is a lot of teasing and tall tales in store during this trip. I am happy to be part of this crew, and they have been kind enough to invite me along, even though I am female and do not have a drop of Irish blood in my veins. Certainly, their wives and girlfriends did not beg to come along – this I know from talking to two of these women. Yet, the crew and I know we are about to begin a very special and unusual journey.

Coming within the week – the next installment of “Dream Boat.

*To respect crewmembers’ privacy, I have changed all names except Steve’s and Patrick’s, due to fairly extensive media coverage that they have received in the past for building and/or sailing the Saint Barbara.

Above photo by Agnes Loftus.

1 comment:

2KoP said...

Yay, Ardis. Good for you for getting back at your blog and for recrafting this rich material. What an adventure! I can't wait to go along for the ride.